Posts filed under 'Martyrs'

1794: Robert Watt, British Conventioner

Add comment October 15th, 2019 Headsman

Our old familiar the Newgate Calendar supplies us with this narration of a Scottish Jacobin to pop the powdered wigs from Edinburgh to Westminster. A published version of the trial in question is available here, and a last-speech broadside awaits you here.

Watt is the only monument in Executed Today‘s pages to the attempted creation of a British National Convention to mirror the operations of that same body across the channel in revolutionary France. If successful, this body would have tended towards displacing the sovereignty of king and parliament, and it laid plains accordingly for an armed insurrection; in the event, it sat briefly and then was broken up with alacrity by ministers who fancied their own necks better than Mr. Paine‘s tongue.

Many members of this movement’s Scottish core were (as the text below eventually notes, just before it devolves into complaining about hostile press) sent not to the gallows but to the new penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. You’ll find several of them — not including our executed Robert Watt — commemorated at Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs’ Monument.


(cc) image from Kim Traynor.

ROBERT WATT and DAVID DOWNIE

Convicted of High Treason, at Edinburgh, with Particulars of the Execution of a Traitor in Scotland

We are now arrived at an alarming period at the modern history of our country. Just engaged in the ruinous war with France, which continues with increasing obstinacy, to the very hour in which we write. Perplexed by treason at home, and threatened with invasion by our enemy, the nation was in a critical situation. Confederate bodies of dissatisfied men, were formed, from London to Edinburgh, pursuing a systematical course of treason, and corresponding with each other, until Government stretched out its powerful arm to crush the traitors. Many writers charge the ministry with oppression, but at such a time as this, better, surely, to support the constitution, corrupt as may be its administration, than suffer its subversion, and see ourselves thrown into that anarchy and confusion, sought for by such men as we shall soon bring before the reader.

Watt and Downie were principals in the Scottish Conspiracy, and were convicted of the crime of high treason. Their trial brought to light the particulars of the plot, to overthrow the constitution of Great Britain; and from which we shall, therefore, make a copious extract.

Their trial came on before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh, on the 3d of September, 1794, when Mr. Anstruther stated the case on the part of the Crown. He began, by observing, that such was the peculiar happiness of this country, that we had been unacquainted with the law of treason for nearly half a century. It was not his intention, if he possessed the powers, of inflaming the passions of the Jury against the prisoner: his object, was to give a plain, a dry narrative of the facts, and a succinct statement of the law.

The laws of treason were now the same in England and Scotland, and the duty of the subjects of both kingdoms should be the same. Scotland, in this instance, had reaped much benefit by the Union, as her laws of treason, previous to that period, were much more severe. The act of Edw. III. stated three distinct species of treason: 1. Compassing and imagining the death of the king; 2. Levying war against him; 3. Assisting his enemies. He would not trouble the Court or Jury with the two last: the single species of treason charged in the present case, was the compassing and imagining the death of the king; which was defined by the conceiving such a design; not the actual act, but the attempt to effect it. But the law which thus anxiously guarded the sovereign, was equally favourable to the subject: for it does not affect him until that imagination is fully proved before “men of his condition.” An overt act of treason is the means used for effectuating the purpose of the mind: it is not necessary to prove a direct attempt to assassinate the king: for the crime is the intention, and the overt act the means used to effect it. He wished not that these sentiments might be held as the opinion of counsel: they were founded on the construction of the ablest writers, Chief Justices Foster, Hale, &c, and, whatever could be proved against the prisoners, which may endanger the kings person, was an overt act of high treason, in the language of the ablest writers. After explaining more fully the distinct species of treason which applied to the present case, Mr. Anstruther said, he trusted that if he could prove any design whereby the king’s person is in danger, that was an overt act; if he was wrong, the judges would correct him. He would now state the facts on which these principles of law were to be laid.

The present conspiracy was not that of a few inconsiderable individuals: it had risen, indeed from small beginnings; from meetings for pretended reforms. It had been fostered by seditious correspondence, the distribution of libellous writings, and had, at last, risen to a height, which, but for the vigilance of administration, might have deluged the country, from one end to the other, with blood. The proceedings of these societies, calling, or rather miscalling themselves Friends of the People, were well known; their first intention was apparently to obtain reform; but this not answering their purpose, they proceeded to greater lengths. He meant to detail the general plans and designs formed among the seditious, and then to state how far the prisoners were implicated in them.

The first dawning of this daring plan was in a letter from Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, to Skirving, the Secretary to the Friends of the People, here. He writes, that as their petitions had been unsuccessful, they must use separate and more effectual measures. Skirving answered, and admitted the necessity of more effectual measures; that he foresaw the downfall of this government, &c. Here also was the first notice of a convention; a measure which it is no wonder they were fond of, when they saw its effects in a neighbouring kingdom (France.) They meant not to petition Parliament, but to proceed in their own plan, and supersede the existing government of the country; and, in that case, the king’s life was put in danger.

Soon after, a convention, a body unknown to the laws of this country, met; and in this there would have been little harm, had their views been peaceable; but their objects were avowedly unconstitutional, and their intention to carry on their plans by force, and thus virtually to lay aside the prerogative of the king. This convention accordingly met, using all the terms, regulations, &c. adopted by the convention of another country, in which it might be said there was in reality little harm, but it was surely a marking proof of their designs. They meant not to apply to Parliament; for whenever that was mentioned, they proceeded to the order of the day. They resolved to oppose every act of Parliament, which they deemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, and were determined to sit, until compelled to rise by a force superior to their own. The Convention, indeed, was dispersed by the spirited conduct of a magistrate, (Provost Elder,) whose merit everyone was forward to acknowledge, and to whose active exertions the country was so much indebted; but another Convention was attempted to be called, who were to frame their own laws, and to be independent of the legislature; or, as they say, independent of their plunderers, enemies, and oppressors, meaning the King, Lords, and Commons: their resolutions will prove that they meant to create a government of their own, to do away the authority of what they called hereditary senators, and packed majorities; all which prove the intention of putting the king’s life in danger.

But what, it may be said, is all this to the prisoner at the bar? who, surprising as it may appear, about two years ago wrote letters to Mr. Secretary Dundas, offering to give information as to certain designs of the Friends of the People. These letters were answered by that right honourable gentleman with that propriety which has ever, marked his public conduct. The prisoner then corresponded with the Lord Advocate, the particulars of which would appear, as his lordship was subpoenaed. Since September 1793, this correspondence has ceased. Previous to that period, the prisoner was not a member of the Society of Friends of the People, nor of the British Convention; but his accession since to its measures, and the calling of another Convention, could be substantiated.

The Convention, indeed, though dispersed, did not cease to exist. In fact, a Committee of Correspondence, of which the prisoner was a member, was instituted, the object of which was to carry into effect the views of the last British Convention, and to elect delegates to a new one. Mr. Watt attended this Committee, and coincided in its measures, which were expressly to supersede the legislature: The prisoner had moved for a Committee of Union; and another was appointed called the Committee of Ways and Means, of both which he was a member. This last was a Secret Committee, kept no minutes, was permanent, and empowered to collect money to support “the great cause.” Mr. Downie was appointed treasurer, and it was to be the medium through which all instructions and directions were to be given to all Friends of the People throughout the kingdom, and was to procure information of the number of those that would spare no exertions to support the great cause. They corresponded with Hardy, respecting the calling of a new Convention, which was to follow up the purposes of the old one; and, as the prisoner was present, he was in this way coupled with the British Convention.

Their next attempt was to debauch the minds of the soldiers, and to excite them to mutiny; for which purpose a paper was printed, and circulated among a regiment of Fencibles then at Dalkeith. This paper, which was evidently seditious, would be brought home to the prisoner, for the types from which it was printed were found in his house, and a copy traced from him into the hands of a soldier.

The next charge to be brought against the prisoner, and the Committee of which he was a member, was a distinct and deliberate plan to overturn the existing government of the country. The plan proposed was this: — A fire was to be raised near the Excise Office, (Edinburgh,) which would require the attendance of the soldiers in the castle, who were to be met there by a body of the Friends of the People, another party of whom were to issue from the West Bow, to confine the soldiers between two fires, and cut off their retreat; the Castle were next to be attempted; the judges (particularly the Lord Justice Clerk) were to be seized; and all the public banks were to be secured. A proclamation was then to be issued, ordering all the farmers to bring in their grain to market as usual; and enjoining all country gentlemen to keep within their houses, or three miles from them, under penalty of death. Then an address was to be sent to His Majesty, commanding him to put an end to the war, change the ministers, or take the consequences. Such was the plan of the Committee of Ways and Means, as proposed by the prisoner.

Previous to this, it should have been mentioned, that all the Friends of the People were to be armed; for which purpose, one Fairley was dispatched round the country to levy contributions, and disperse seditious pamphlets; for which purpose, he got particular instructions from the prisoner. Reports were spread through the same channel, that the Goldsmith’s Hall Association were arming, and that, it was necessary for the Friends of the People to arm also, for they would be butchered either by them or the French. It would be proved, that the prisoner gave orders to Robert Orrock to make 4,000 pikes; and also orders to one Brown for the same purpose. These were to be used for completing the great plan; and Fairley’s mission was to inform the country of these intended proceedings. Another representative body was also formed, called “Collectors of Sense and Money,” who were to have the distribution of the pikes, and to command the different parties. In one instance, a person had been desired to carry some pikes to the Collectors; who made answer, that he could not do it, for the Collectors were not to be trusted yet.

Mr. Anstruther then recapitulated shortly the different heads, and concluded an elaborate and most clear and distinct pleading, of more than two hours and a half, by requesting the jury to lay no farther stress on what he had said than it should be proved, as it was meant merely as a clue to the evidence which should be brought before them.

The first witness called, was Edward Lauzon, a king’s messenger. Upon being asked if he was employed last summer to search the house of one Hardy, in London, Mr. Hamilton, counsel for the prisoner, objected to the question, and insisted that, before proving any other matter whatever, some direct overt act committed by the prisoner must be proved. Mr. Anstruther answered, that, before proving the prisoner guilty of being concerned in a particular plot or conspiracy, it was surely necessary first to prove that such plot or conspiracy existed. In the trials in the year 1745, before any particular overt act was attempted to be proved against any of the accused, there was always evidence adduced to prove the existence of a rebellion. The Court over-ruled the objection. The witness then swore, that he seized several papers in Hardy’s house, particularly a letter signed by one Skirving, and several others: also a printed circular letter, signed, “T. Hardy, Secretary.” These letters the witness produced. Mr. William Scott, Procurator Fiscal for the shire of Edinburgh, gave an account of the seizure of Skirving’s papers in December, 1793, and of the after-disposal of them. He produced several of these papers, particularly one intituled, “Minutes of Debate in the General Committee;” also several papers that were found in the lodgings of Margarot, Gerald, and [John] Sinclair. Mr. Scott swore to his being present at the dispersion of the Convention. The letter by Skirving and Hardy being authenticated by Mr. Lauzun, who swore he found it in Hardy’s possession, was then read.

John Taylor, of Fleet-street, London, was then called. He swore he was a member of the London Corresponding Society, and was acquainted with Mr. Hardy, who was Secretary to that Society. Being shown several letters and papers, he believed them to be Hardy’s hand-writing. The Society consisted of several divisions, about fourteen, he thought, in number; there were several Committees, particularly a grand one, which consisted of a member from each division, a Committee of Secrecy, and a Committee of Emergency. The latter was formed in May last. He attended a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern, on the 20th of January last, about one thousand were present. So great was the crowd, that the floor gave way, and the meeting adjourned to the Assembly Room, where the secretaries read the resolutions, which were afterwards printed. An address, founded on these resolutions, was afterwards carried by a show of hands. One of the resolutions was, that the motions of Parliament were to be watched over; and if troops were to be brought into the country, or the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, &c. that force ought to be repelled by force. The witness produced a copy of these resolutions, which he got from a person of the name of Muir, in the presence of Hardy. He saw several other copies about the room. The witness was also present at another meeting, held at Chalk Farm (about two miles from London) on the 14th of April last. The meeting was of the same nature as the former; there were about three thousand persons present, and, among others, Mr. Hardy.

Henry Goodman, clerk to Mr. Wickham, London, was present at the meeting at Chalk Farm, and heard the resolutions read. The resolutions now shown to him were, as far as he recollected, the resolutions passed at the meeting. He understood that it was the intention of the society to arm themselves, to protect the members in the same way that the National Convention of France had been protected by the citizens of Paris; that he heard this talked of in different meetings.

Alexander Atchison was a member of, and Assistant Secretary to the British Convention, and wrote part of their minutes: he deposed, that the papers now shown in Court to him, he had often seen before; that he took down the minutes as accurately as he could; that he recollected Mr. Callandar making several motions in the Convention; and particularly an amendment to a motion which was referred to a Committee. This amendment was read: it related to the agreement in the Convention to continue permanent, and watch over the motions of Parliament, &c. &c. that he knew Mr. Watt, the prisoner; and was, together with him, a member of the Committee of Union. That Committee met in January last, the Convention being previously dispersed in December — The purpose of this Committee was to keep up a spirit of union among the Friends of Reform, and that he was sent there by the Division of Cannongate. The great object of the Committee was to obtain the same kind of reform sought for by Mr. Pitt and the Duke of Richmond, about twelve years ago. That he was a member also of the Committee of the Ways and Means which was instituted for the purpose of paying past debts, and to defray the expense of future delegates to another Convention, to be held somewhere in England, which second Convention was meant for the same purpose as the British Convention, namely, obtaining the Reform first proposed by Pitt and Richmond; that he has often had conversations with different persons on the subject of Reform; that he recollected having seen a pike in the house of George Ross, in the presence of several blacksmiths, which was shaped like the head of an halbert. Being asked whether he ever gave a different account of what he had now sworn at any other place, he believed he never did; if he did it, it must be contrary to truth, and this he should say, though he should be guillotined for it.

Mr. W. Erskine, also counsel for the prisoners, here stopped the witness, who was removed. He said, that it was an established point in the law of Scotland, that a witness could not be affected by anything he had before said relative to the present subject of his examination; nor could it hurt him in any degree. Mr. Anstruther said, that this did not exist in the law of England. The Lord President observed, that it appeared to him there was really a discrepancy in the law in this respect. Mr. Anstruther here said, that to put an end to the dispute, and, as Atchison had conducted himself in such a manner, he would, so far from laying any stress on his evidence, request the jury to throw out of their minds every syllable he had used.

George Ross authenticated the minutes of Convention, and other papers; knew the prisoner at the bar, and had seen him at his own house.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the pikes being brought from Watt’s, and the fount of types, of which he had got an impression taken in the precise state they came from Watt’s house.

[Paper read — An Address to the Fencibles.]

James Sommeville, a printer, deposed as to the casting off the impression from the types.

William Watson, of Dalkeith, once saw Watt at his own house, but could not say whether the prisoner at the bar was the man. Remembered a Fencible regiment in Dalkeith, which was about the time he met with Mr. Downie, who carried him to Watt’s, to get a hand-bill about the Fencibles, which he had heard of, and was curious to see, but could not get it there; and went to one Kennedy on the South Bridge, from whence he received several copies.

The Lord Advocate said, that, except those (Downie and Stock,) against whom bills were already found, he meant to bring no other person to trial for treason.

Arthur M’Ewan, weaver, of Leith, a member of the British Convention, and also of the Committee of Ways and Means, of which last Watt was a member, deposed, that, at one of their meetings, Watt read a paper, proposing to seize the judges, bank, &c. to decoy the soldiers by a fire, &c. but did not know what was to be done with the persons seized, nor whether it was to be done in the day or night. Commissioners were to be appointed to take charge of the cash, but knew not what was to follow this. Deposed as to the proclamation to corn-dealers, and country gentlemen, and the address to the king to put an end to the war, &c. Watt asked him to accompany him to Orrock’s, to whom he (Watt) gave orders to make pikes as fast as he could, as he had 4000 to send to Perth, besides what he had to distribute in Edinburgh. Orrock made a draft of one: a gentleman’s servant asking what was their use, was told, that they were for mounting a gate. Knew that Fairley was sent into the country, and had visited a number of places; that he reported Paisley to be in a state of great readiness, but did not know what that meant. The witness disapproved of these proceedings, and would consent to nothing that would disturb the peace, or shed the blood of his countrymen; and he thought the plan proposed would have that tendency. Watt produced, at one of the meetings, a paper containing what was called fundamental principles, which he knew but little of. William Bonthorn was a member of the Society of the Friends of the People, but had resolved to withdraw, as things had passed he disapproved of. Watt, at one of their meetings, read a paper, of which he did not remember the particulars, as it confused him. The paper contained something about seizing the castle, raising an alarm by fire, &c. upon the supposition that numbers could be got to assist them. Remembered nothing of particular persons being intended to be seized; but thought the bank was mentioned; this paper frightened him much; it mentioned also the seizing the guard-house; recollected no numbers that were mentioned to carry this plan into effect. M’Ewan showed an opposition to it. The circular letter of the Committee was written by Mr. Stock.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the finding sundry papers in Watt’s house, one the drawing of a pike, and the paper sworn to by Atchison, in the Sub-Committee.

John Fairley, of Broughton, a delegate to the Convention, deposed, that his constituents met after the dissolution of that body. Heard that pikes were making, and Watt informed him of this, or rather showed him one. Watt said, that they were only intended for self-defence, and that none were to get them but those who applied and paid for them. Measures of government might drive them to despair, and cause bloodshed; but Watt said, he hoped there would be none, as the obnoxious or active against the cause of the people would be imprisoned. The soldiers would be glad of freedom, and deputations might be sent them. Watt proposed to show the arms to the collectors, which the witness objected to, as hazardous. In going to the West country, a parcel was left for him by Watt, containing paper for distribution, which he left at Stirling, St. Ninion’s, Kirkintulloch, Glasgow, Paisley, &c. On his return to Edinburgh, he went to the Committee of Ways and Means; that Watt, Downie, and M’Ewan were there, to whom he reported the result of his journey, Returned the instructions to Watt; they mentioned, he recollected, something about a plan, and Britain being free, Downie paid him the expenses of his journey.

Dr. Forrest, at Stirling, gave an account of Fairley’s calling on him, showing him his written instructions, &c. In these instructions there was a blank, which he supposed was to be filled up “arms.” Showed him the figure of a weapon like a halbert, which was preparing for defence, and that these weapons could be furnished by a person who he understood was about Edinburgh. Something passed about arming the people, and disarming the soldiers.

Robert Orrock, smith, first heard arms mentioned in G. Ross’s house in March last. In April Watt applied to him to make a pike, and he brought one to Ross’s, where Watt and other members of the committee were, and he left it at Watt’s desire. In May, Watt desired him to make more of that pattern, and some of a different kind. While making them, a person (Martin Todd) called and showed a form of a pike, which he refused to make. Brown also called, and told him he was making pikes for Watt, and that 1000 were wanted: but spoke of this as a secret, which alarmed the witness. The extent of his order was five dozen which were ordered by Watt, but paid for by Downie. He was told, if enquired about, to say they were for the top of a gate: never had an order for pikes before; but had made one for his own defence, without being employed by any person.

Martin Todd, smith, deposed as to calling on Orrock, to enquire about the pikes.

William Brown, a smith, said one Robertson called on him to bespeak several spears of a particular shape, for Watt; and at another time, he made fourteen spears for Mr. Watt, like mole spears. Recollected the conversation with Orrock, but did not say that such a number of pikes would be wanted.

John Fairley was re-examined, at his own desire. He recollected Watt saying, that the banks and public offices were to be seized. The most active against them were to be imprisoned, and couriers sent to the country to announce this. The Magistrates of Edinburgh were particularly spoken of.

Walter Miller, Perth sent money to Downie, for relief of distressed patriots in the cause of reform; never had authority for supposing that the new Convention had any object but reform by legal means.

Here the evidence of the Crown was closed.

Defence of Watt.

Mr. W. Erskine, junior counsel for the prisoner, said, that as the Court had sat so long, he would not trouble them with many words. He would rest his defence upon the correspondence carried on between the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate, and the prisoner, by which it would appear, that he had attended the meetings of the Friends of the People, with no other view than a design to give information of their proceedings. A letter from the prisoner to Mr. Secretary Dundas was read, which stated in substance, that, as he did not approve of the dangerous principles which then prevailed in Scotland, and was a friend to the Constitution of his country, he thought it his duty to communicate to him, as a good subject, what information he could procure of the proceedings of those who styled themselves Friends of the People. From an acquaintance with several of the leading men among them, he flattered himself he had this in his power; and then went on to mention some of the names of those leading men in Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh. In the first of these places, he said, he had been educated, and had resided in the two last for a considerable number of years. It concluded with enjoining secrecy.

To this letter an answer was returned which was also read. It acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Watt’s and, after expressing a hope that things were not so bad as he represented, desired him to go on, and he might depend upon his communications being kept perfectly secret Another letter from Mr. Dundas to Mr. M’Ritche, the prisoner’s agent, was next read, in answer to one from Mr. M’Ritchie, requesting of Mr. Dundas what letters he had of the prisoner’s. The answer bore, that all the letters he had received from Mr. Watt had been delivered to the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk authenticated the letter of Mr. Dundas.

The Lord Advocate being sworn, in exculpation, he gave a distinct account of the transactions which he had had with the prisoner. He had conversed with him several times at his own lodgings; and he had at one time given him some information which he thought of importance. This was respecting the disaffection of some dragoons at Perth, which upon enquiry, turned out to be ill-founded. In March, 1793, his lordship said, an offer had been made to him to disclose some important secrets, provided he would give the prisoner 1000l. This he absolutely refused. However, sometime after, the prisoner having informed him that he was much pressed for money to retrieve a bill of 30l. his lordship, who was then in London, not wishing he should be distressed for such a small sum, sent him an order for the payment of it. All this happened previous to the meeting of the Convention; since which time, at least since October last, he did not recollect seeing or having any connection with the prisoner.

Mr. Hamilton contended, that the prosecutor had failed in bringing the most criminal part of it home to the prisoner. He dwelt long on correspondence between Mr. Dundas and Mr. Watt. He said, the prisoner had not deserted the service in which he had engaged; but had not had an opportunity of exercising it until the very time he was apprehended. He contended, that he was a spy for government; and it was well known that a spy was obliged to assume not only the appearance of those whose secrets he meant to reveal, but even to make part in their proceedings, in order to prevent a discovery. He alluded to spies in armies, and mentioned a melancholy circumstance which happened to one last war, a gentleman with whom he had the honour of being acquainted. A spy in an army, he said, was obliged not only to assume the uniform of the enemy, but even to appear in arms; and it would be exceedingly hard indeed, if taken in a conflict, that he should be punished for discharging his duty. He concluded with hoping the jury would bring in a verdict, finding the charges not proved.

The Lord President, after clearly defining the laws of treason, summed up the evidence, narrating and explaining the various parts with much candour; leaving it entirely to the jury to return such a verdict as their judgment should direct.

The jury withdrew about half-past five o’clock in the morning, and in about five minutes, returned with a verdict — Guilty.

The trial lasted nearly twenty-two hours. The jury were upwards of forty minutes considering the case of Downie: the majority agreeing among themselves that he was guilty, they reconciled themselves to this verdict a last, by unanimously consenting to recommend him to mercy, which they did in a very strong manner. Shortly after the following awful sentence of the court was passed upon these unfortunate men.

Robert Watt and David Downie, you have been found guilty of High Treason by your Peers. The sentence of the Court is, therefore, that you be taken from the place, whence you came, from thence you shall be drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, on Wednesday, the 15th of October, there to hang by your necks till you are both dead; your bowels to be taken out, and cast in your faces; and each of your bodies to be cut in four quarters, to be at the disposal of his Majesty: and the Lord have mercy on your souls!

[such gory sentences were no longer conducted in practice, as we shall see. -ed.]

The unfortunate prisoners received the dreadful sentence with much firmness and composure, and were, immediately conducted to the castle. Robert Watt was ordered for execution, but a respite came for David Downie: as soon as it was intimated to Downie, he started, as from a dream, and exclaimed, “Glory to God, and thanks to the king, for his goodness: I will pray for him as long as I live.” After which tears of gratitude flowed. He was transported for life.

About half past one o’clock on the 15th of October, the two junior magistrates, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., the Rev. Principal Baird, and a number of constables, attended them the town officers, and the city guard lining the streets, walked in procession from the Council Chamber to the east end of Castle-hill, when a message was sent to the sheriffs in the Castle, that they were there waiting to receive the prisoner. The prisoner was immediately placed in a hurdle, with his back to the horse, and the executioner, with a large axe in his hand, took his seat opposite him, at the further end of the hurdle. The procession then set out from the Castle, the sheriffs walking in front, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., a number of county constables surrounding the hurdle, and the military keeping off the crowd. In this manner they proceeded, until they joined the magistrates, when the military returned to the Castle, and then the procession was conducted in the following order:

The City Constables;
Town Officers, bare-headed;
Bailie Lothian and Bailie Dalrymple;
Rev. Principal Baird;
Mr. Sheriff Clerk and Mr. Sheriff Davidson;
A number of County Constables;
THE HURDLE,
Painted black, and drawn by a white Horse,
A number of County Constables.

The city-guard lined the streets, to keep off the multitude.

When they had reached the Tolbooth door, the prisoner was taken from the hurdle, and conducted into the prison, where a considerable time was spent in devotional exercise. The prisoner then came out upon the platform, attended: by the Magistrates, Sheriffs, Principal Baird, &c. Some time was then spent in prayer and singing psalms; after which the prisoner mounted the drop-board, and was soon launched into eternity.

When the body was taken down, it was stretched upon a table, and the executioner, with two blows of the axe, severed off the head, which was received into a basket, and then held up to the multitude, while the executioner called aloud, “There is the head of a traitor, and so perish all traitors.” The body and head were then placed in a coffin, and removed. Never was any execution conducted with more solemnity and order. The procession advanced with slow step, and the prisoner exhibited a most melancholy spectacle. He held a bible in his hand; his eyes remained in a fixed posture, upwards, and he was not observed to make one movement, or cast a single glance upon the multitude. He was much emaciated, and his countenance so pale, that, while on his way to the place of execution, he appeared almost lifeless; but, when he came upon the platform, he seemed to be somewhat revived, and behaved himself, during the awful solemnity, with due resignation and humble fortitude. The impression the situation had made upon himself seemed truly astonishing, as those who had ever seen him before, declared, they could not have known him to be the same person. His appearance was dirty, muffled up in a great coat; and he showed signs of peculiar agitation and remorse for the crime for which he was then going to suffer.

The surrounding multitude, during the execution of the awful proceeding, did not discover any other emotion than is usual upon occasions of any other executions. The town-guard, attended by the constables, lined the streets.

Robert Watt was born in the shire of Kincardine, and was, at the time of his execution, about thirty-six years old. He was the natural son of a Mr. Barclay, a gentleman of fortune and respectability; but like most other children of illegitimate parentage, he was brought up and educated under the name of his mother. He was, at about ten years of age, sent to Perth; where he received a very good education. Being sixteen he engaged himself with a lawyer at Perth; but being of a religious disposition, he was disgusted at this profession, and soon withdrew from the desk of his master. Soon after he went to Edinburgh, and engaged as a clerk in a paper-warehouse, where he lived happily and respectably for some years. His only complaint was a deficiency of salary. Having a desire to share in the profits, as well as the toils, of the business, he wrote to his father, and prevailed upon him to assist him with some money, to enable him to procure a partnership with his master. He then made proposals to the above purpose; these were, however, rejected by his employer. Being provided with money, he entered into the wine and spirit trade. His success in business continued very promising, until he was almost ruined by the commencement of the war. At this period, his acquaintance with the Friends of the People commenced.

Several other leaders of this conspiracy in Scotland were seized. Of those where convicted, the Reverend T. Fishe Palmer, William Skirving, Thomas Muir, Maurice Margoret, and Joseph Gerald, who were transported to Botany-bay. Numbers, to avoid the avenging arm of justice, fled to the United States of America, where, with impunity, they disseminated their treason, and poured out volleys of abuse against their native land. These renegades were no sooner landed in a new world, than they rallied round the footstool of faction there, by commencing editors of, and scribblers in, newspapers, which swarm in that boasted land of liberty. In their filthy columns, they extolled the murderous revolutionists of France, and laboured to incense Americans against their own injured country. It is fit these apostates should be pointed at. John Thompson, of Scotland, printed one of these inflammatory sheets, at Richmond, in Virginia: Matthew Duane, of Ireland, another in Philadelphia. John Dinmore, late an apothecary, at Walton, in Norfolk, planted his literary annoyance in Columbia, the seat of the American government, and, for his extraordinary scurrility against England, the Gallic-American President, Jefferson, made him State Printer, and, heaven forefend, a Justice of the American Peace. This inflammatory sheet he called “The Expositor.” In order to give the reader an idea of the infamy of the abandoned scribblers, we shall quote a note from Mr. Janson’s History of America. Speaking of Denmore, says Mr. Janson, “Among the vile scurrility of his Expositor, last summer, was the following: After noticing the introduction of the American minister, Mr. Monroe, to the king, he adds, ‘For once an honest man had appeared at the Court of St. James’s.'” Another paper, printed by Mr. S. Snowden, at the same place, and preferring England to France, makes this observation upon the paragraph, “It is, no doubt, difficult for an honest man in the Doctor’s (apothecary Dinmore’s) estimation of the word, to get admission there; yet, he cannot have forgotten, that he himself was within a cable’s length of having his name announced to his Britannic Majesty — not by Sir Stephen Cotterell, but by the Recorder of London, and Ordinary of Newgate, as joint Masters of the Ceremonies.”

Cooper, the bosom-friend of the hoary apostate, Priestley, the bitterest foe we had in the new world, so greatly misused the press, that the country of his adoption threw him into a prison.

Inferior scribblers against Britain, are almost without number.

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1928: Chen Jue

Add comment October 14th, 2019 Headsman

China Communist revolutionary hero Chen Jue was executed on this date in 1928 by the nationalist Kuomintang.

Chen Jue with his wife Zhao Yunxiao or Yunqi are celebrated revolutionary martyrs for their respective sacrifices of life for the cause in Changsha.

They met pursuing studies of revolutionary praxis in Moscow in the mid-1920s, and returned as revolutionary cadres at just the moment that China fell to open civil war.

In April 1928 both were betrayed to the KMT. Zhao Yunxiao was pregnant; she would be suffered to carry her daughter Qiming to term before quaffing the same cup as her husband. The two swapped red tear-jerking missives before their death, that are preserved at an exhibit at the People’s Revolutionary Military Museum.

“We didn’t believe in ghosts before. Now I am willing to become a ghost,” the man wrote the wife before his execution. “We are here to save the parents, wives and children of the entire Chinese people, so we sacrificed everything. Although we die, our spirits remain with the comrades who yet live.”

“Little baby, your mother will be taken from you when you have no more than a month and a dozen days,” the wife wrote the child months later. “Little baby, I tell you very clearly that your parents were Communists … I hope that when you grow up, you read well and know how your parents died.”*

Their cause, of course, was destined for victory. If history records the destiny of their child, I have not located it.

* Both of these are my amateur-hour translations via online tours, unaided by any actual expertise in Chinese. Caveat emptor.

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1939: Javier Bueno, Asturian socialist newsman

Add comment September 26th, 2019 Headsman

Socialist journalist Javier Bueno was garotted by the fascists on this date in 1939.

Bueno (Spanish Wikipedia entry | Asturian), “instigator of the revolution,” was a newsman who became the editor of the newspaper Avance in the Asturian city of Gijon.

Through “the professional zeal and personal militancy of its director” (quoth historian David Ruiz) this paper emerged as an essential organ of the rising Asturian working class in the fraught years running up to the Spanish Civil War. Repeated bannings (of the newspaper) and imprisonments (of Bueno) only enhanced his stature; “you attract the pyrotechnic rays of our enemies,” Indalecio Prieto wrote him admiringly.

The revolutionaries freed him in 1936, two years deep in a life sentence, and Bueno went back to agitation in the pages of Avance before taking to the front lines himself. Franco’s victory in 1939 found him in Madrid, working at another radical paper, Claridad. Bueno faced a snap military tribunal with no more than a pro forma pretense of defense.

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Feast Day of St. Maurice

Add comment September 22nd, 2019 Headsman

September 22 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Maurice, and of the legendary all-Christian Theban Legion which he commanded.

This legion raised from Egypt is supposed to have converted en masse to Christianity, and suffered the persecution of Diocletian when it was deployed to Gaul and there refused to sacrifice to pagan gods or harass local Christians. The hagiography — and the earliest source is Eucherius of Lyon, a century and a half after the supposed events — holds that the legion stood a decimation to punish its fidelity, and then another, and then another … and then finally they dispensed with the fractional increments and killed the entire remaining 72.9% of them.

Ancient Christian martyrologies of course boast quite a few soldiers but in their day, from late antiquity all the way to Early Modern Europe, Maurice and the Theban Legion had star treatment on the relic-and-pilgrimage circuit. Many bygone political concerns adopted Maurice as a patron: Burgundy, the French Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, and their successors the Holy Roman Emperors; the House of Savoy; the Lombard kingdom; and of course such cities as Saint-Maurice, Switzerland, St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Notably, Maurice has been depicted as black since the refurbishment of the Magdeburg cathedral in the mid-1200s, when a piece of statuary (still surviving today) marks an apparent pivot from previous white Maurices perhaps reflecting Europe’s contact with Ethiopian Christians facilitated by the Crusades.

Whatever the reason, the black Maurice quickly became the dominant image in Germanic central Europe, which in turn redounded to a reputation as “the first black saint”. For that reason, Maurice is a seminal figure in European artistic representation of black Africans.

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1525: Jan de Bakker

Add comment September 15th, 2019 Headsman

Heretical prelate Jan de Bakker went to The Stake at The Hague on this date in 1525.


Stained glass dedicated to Jan de Bakker at Sint-Jacobskerk in The Hague. (cc) image from Roel Wijnants.

A young ordained priest, Bakker (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), Bakker got interested in early Sacramentarianism and learned at the foot of that Reformation-proximate scholar Erasmus.

His preaching veering outside the bounds of orthodoxy he was imprisoned briefly and soon set aside his holy orders for the baking trade, itinerant evangelizing, and marriage.

After the Inquisition had a go at menacing him into compliance, Bakker had the honor of submitting his living flesh to the flame under the eyes of the Hapsburg governor, Margaret of Austria. “O death, where is thy victory?” were his last words, quoting Corinthians. “O death, where is they sting?” Not so sanguine as he about the pains of the stake, his illicit wife preferred strategic repudiation to scriptural owns.

As he’s remembered as the Protestant protomartyr in the northern Netherlands he’s had a purchase on subsequent generations’ remembrance, and there are some streets and schools named for him.

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1619: Melchior Grodziecki, Istvan Pongracz and Marko Krizin, Jesuits

Add comment September 7th, 2019 Headsman

Jesuits Melchior Grodziecki, Istvan Pongracz, and Marko Krizin earned martyrdom at the hands of the Calvinists 400 years ago today.

A Pole, a Hungarian, and a Croat, respectively, they were emissaries of their vast polyglot empire’s official religion who were unlucky to be in the wrong place when theological differences went kinetic and helped launch the Thirty Years War.

That wrong place was the Hungarian city of Kassa (today the Slovakian city of Košice) which was captured by Protestant Transylvanian prince Gabriel Bethlen on September 5, 1619. Confined to the Jesuit residence, these three were assailed by a mob of soldiers who broke in on the morning of September 7 and demanded their immediate apostasy, putting them to summary torture and eventual beheading when they refused.

All three were canonized in the 20th century.

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1917: Albin Köbis and Max Reichpietsch, Wilhelmshaven mutineers

Add comment September 5th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1917, German sailors Albin Köbis and Max Reichpietsch were shot at the Wahner Heide proving ground near Cologne.

They’d been convicted at court martial of being “ringleaders” of a mutiny of increasingly militant anti-war seamen from the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold, who on August 2 had marched into the port of Wilhelmshaven to resist their continued participation in the futile bloodbath.

“Nobody wanted a revolution, we just wanted to be treated more like human beings,” said one of their number, sentenced by the same military tribunal to 15 years. But this was a bit coy, considering that Kobis wrote his parents that “I die with a curse on the German-militarist state.”

And why not? The Russian Revolution was in full swing at this moment, while the navy had become a center of radicalized anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment. In a year’s time another sailors’ mutiny would set off the events that finally forced an end to the Great War — and after the armistice, sailors like Rudolf Egelhofer were again prominent in revolutionary ventures like the Munich Soviet. If there is one thing we can state with confidence about the Wilhelmshaven event, it’s that some participants most certainly aspired to a revolution.

Likewise the contemporary left-wing press recognized in Köbis and Reichpietsch heroes and fellow-travelers; they were saluted as martyrs in their own day, and after World War II, East Berlin had a Köbisstrasse appropriately near to the naval headquarters. While some Communist martyrs were persona non grata on the other side of the Berlin Wall, West German television also aired a dramatization in 1969, called Marinemeuterei 1917.


Memorial to Reichpietsch (left) and Köbis (cc) image from Gordito1869.

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1853: Gasparich Mark Kilit

Add comment September 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1853, Hungarian patriot-priest Gasparich Mark Kilit was executed by the Austrian empire for his part in the failed revolutions of 1848-1849.

Gasparich — it’s a Hungarian link, as are most sources about the man — was a Franciscan who served as a camp priest to the nationalist insurgents under Perczel, who made him a Major.

After the revolutions were defeated and suppressed, he managed to live a couple of years under a pseudonym. But, writing for a Hungarian newspaper and dabbling with new radical movements, he was hardly keeping his head down. He’d even become a socialist on top of everything else. Captured late in 1852, Gasparich’s fate might have been sealed by the early 1853 attempted assassination of Emperor Franz Joseph and the resulting pall of state security.

Gasparich was hanged at a pig field outside Bratislava in the early hours of September 2, 1853.

A street and a monument in Zalaegerszeg, the capital of the man’s native haunts, preserve Gasparich’s name for the ages.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason

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1588: Eight Catholics after the defeat of the Spanish Armada

Add comment August 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1588, Elizabethan England celebrated the defeat of the Spanish Armada with Catholic gallows spread throughout London, claiming eight souls in all.

It was earlier that August that English pluck, Dutch reinforcements, and the Protestant Wind had connived to see off that great Spanish fleet and the prospect of Catholic and continental domination.

Although Catholics were liable for life and limb throughout these years it’s hard to put down the large-scale public hangings (some with full drawing-and-quartering pains) of priests and laymen down to coincidental timing, particularly given the unusual choice to distribute them to several gallows all around London. Here, surely, was a triumphant gloat for the furtive adherents of the old faith to ponder.

The Catholic Encylcopedia’s entry on the Venerable Robert Morton, a priest who was put to death at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, surveys the carnage:

At the same time and place suffered Hugh Moor, a layman, aged 25, of Grantham, Lincolnshire, and Gray’s Inn, London, for having been reconciled to the Church by Fr. Thomas Stephenson, S.J. On the same day suffered (1) at Mile End, William Dean, a priest (q. v.); and Henry Webley, a layman, born in the city of Gloucester; (2) near the Theatre, William Gunter, a priest, born at Raglan, Monmouthshire, educated at Reims; (3) at Clerkenwell, Thomas Holford, a priest, born at Aston, in Acton, Cheshire, educated at Reims, who was hanged only; and (4) between Brentford and Hounslow, Middlesex, James Claxton or Clarkson, a priest, born in Yorkshire and educated at Reims; and Thomas Felton, born at Bermondsey Abbey in 1567, son of B. John Felton,* tonsured 1583 and about to be professed a Minim, who had suffered terrible tortures in prison.

Another priest, plus four additional lay Catholics, quaffed the same bitter cup on August 30.

* No relation, however, to the executed assassin John Felton forty years on: that man’s father made his way in the world hunting Catholic recusants to inform upon.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Genesius

Add comment August 25th, 2019 Headsman

“I love acting. It is so much more real than life.”

Oscar Wilde

August 25 is the feast date of Saint Genesius of Rome.

He’s the patron of actors and to judge by his career he was the earliest and greatest pioneer of the Method.

The story with Genesius, and as usual for early Christians we have more of hagiography than historicity, is that during the persecutions of Diocletian, the very pagan St. G. was tasked with caricaturing a Christian convert on stage. As a fellow thespian poured a “baptism” over him, Genesius was bathed instead by the Holy Spirit and actually converted, right on the spot — preaching to the infuriated emperor,

I came here today to please an earthly Emperor but what I have done is to please a heavenly King. I came here to give you laughter, but what I have done is to give joy to God and his angels. From this moment on, believe me, I will never mock these great mysteries again. I now know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God, the Light, the Truth and the Mercy of all who have received his gift of baptism. O great Emperor, believe in these mysteries! I will teach you, and you will know the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God.

Diocletian had him tortured and beheaded instead.

Apart from actors, Genesius also accepts petitions from the whole gamut of jesters and caperers including clowns, comedians, dancers and musicians. Also lawyers.

There is a Fraternity of St. Genesius, recently developed to support Catholics working in theater and cinema. Theaters bear his name in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Sydney, Australia.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Actors,Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,God,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,The Supernatural,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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